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Questions abound as Cardin steps into larger role

Ben Cardin, Maryland's junior U.S. senator, just got a promotion that makes him a big player on international issues.

But will Cardin retain his focus on Maryland matters after he plunges into the elevated world of foreign affairs?

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Previously, Cardin, who has served in Congress since 1987— the last eight in the Senate — juggled his role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with his other work on panels dealing with health care, retirement issues, the environment and fiscal matters.

Now, though, he is the Senate Democrats' lead spokesman on international matters. He was named the panel's ranking Democrat after Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is fighting federal corruption charges, relinquished that role.

This puts Cardin on the hot seat.

Menendez angered the Obama administration by loudly opposing the president on nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Cardin, though, has charted a diplomatic course. He supports the president's goal of denying Iran nuclear weapons while demanding the final agreement, vetted by Congress, set tough parameters for Iran's mullahs.

It's a delicate balancing act for Cardin, whose political base has always been the Baltimore region's large Jewish community centered in Northwest Baltimore County and adjacent city neighborhoods.

While remaining loyal to the president's efforts to strike a no-nukes deal, it appears Cardin understands the deep and alarmist concerns voiced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahou. Many ardent Israeli supporters in Maryland share the prime minister's skepticism.

Thus, it came as no surprise that on the same day Cardin gained his promotion on the Foreign Relations Committee, he issued a statement echoing Ronald Reagan's words.

The best outcome, Cardin said, would be diplomatic. However, he added, "there is no trust when it comes to Iran. The final agreement must be verifiable and transparent."

Trust but verify, as Reagan famously put it.

Cardin's role could be crucial for the president on the Foreign Relations Committee.

He's in a good position to work behind the scenes with Republicans who might soften their opposition if persuaded the final Iran agreement is, indeed, the best hope for avoiding nuclear conflict in the Mideast.

Yet with Cardin turning his attention to Iran and other overseas issues, will he ignore Maryland matters?

After former Sen. Paul Sarbanes became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he left much of the work on Maryland's priorities to Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

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Will Cardin follow that same pattern?

Cardin seems to recognize his split responsibilities.

The day after his elevation to the top Democratic post on the Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin participated in a roundtable discussion with women's organizations in Howard County.

He followed that with a roundtable discussion for employees at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Cardin's ties to Northwest Baltimore County are deep and strong. He and his wife, Myrna, are third-generation members of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville, near their home.

His heightened importance in Congress comes as no surprise to Baltimore-area residents who have followed Ben Cardin's career.

He was elected to the House of Delegates when he was 21 and still in law school — where he graduated first in his class.

He became the state's youngster Speaker of the House and revolutionized the position during his eight years in the powerful post.

Then it was on to a 20-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives before replacing Sarbanes in the Senate in 2006.

Will his recent promotion to the Big Leagues of international affairs spoil Ben Cardin?

His record indicates that it won't.

Barry Rascovar of Reisterstown, writes a blog, http://www.politicalmaryland.com, and can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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